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Ex-workers at Newfoundland shipyard raise concern workers’ compensation claims being ignored

WATCH: Ex-workers who were diagnosed with cancer while working for a shipyard in Newfoundland and Labrador are worried that a new development at their former worksite could lead to their compensation claims being ignored. Ross Lord reports.

Ex-workers from an old shipyard in Newfoundland and Labrador are worried that a new development at their former worksite could lead to workers’ compensation claims being ignored.

For many years, former workers at the Marystown Shipyard on the province’s Burin Peninsula have blamed their cancer diagnoses on hazardous conditions at the shipyard from decades ago, when it was owned by the provincial government (1967-1997.)

The shipyard’s new owners plan to convert the stagnant yard into an aquaculture service centre, creating hundreds of jobs.

But Bernadine Bennett, who advocates with a group called the Marystown Shipyard Families Alliance, fears an emphasis on the future will make it easier to ignore the site’s dark past.

“It’s getting away from the whole contamination issue and the whole exposure and the occupational disease,” Bennett said.

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Brian Walsh, who started working at the shipyard in 1984 — before the province had health and safety legislation — shares those concerns.

“I think we’re forgotten about now and have been for quite a while,” he said.

Walsh says he spent much of his time at the yard painting and sandblasting toxic chemicals like asbestos and lead from ships, wearing only a thin paper mask for protection.

“I see smoke in the air, that’s smoke in the air. I didn’t know there was cadmium in it, chromium, cobalt, lead, you name it,” he said. “We knew asbestos was asbestos. We didn’t know the harm it was doing to us.”

READ MORE: Newfoundland woman fighting for her own life after crusading for shipyard workers

Walsh continued working there, noting health and safety standards have greatly improved since the 1980s. But, this summer, a life-altering development made him think twice about his early years.

“I got sick, went to emergency. They did a chest X-ray,” Walsh said. “Radiologist noticed a mass in my lung.”

It was lung cancer, a condition he blames on his earlier exposure to hazardous substances.

Former Marystown Shipyard worker Brian Walsh filed for compensation after developing cancer.
Former Marystown Shipyard worker Brian Walsh filed for compensation after developing cancer.

This month, Walsh filed for workers’ compensation. Cancer claims from 46 former workers have been approved.

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But, Bennett says, 105 others have been denied. She believes they’d have better success if the cases were decided by the provincial government, which owned the shipyard until 1997, rather than the workers’ compensation agency that currently reviews them.

Last month, a company called Marbase purchased the shipyard, promising the conversion to aquaculture will be complete in two or three years.

As part of the shipyard conversion, the provincial government will spend more than $1 million cleaning up any contamination that happened before 1997. Bennett says that’s another signal the government is responsible for compensating former workers.

“They knew bringing workers in there was putting them at risk, which, in turn, turns into occupational disease,” Bennett said.

Marystown Shipyard, circa the late 1980s. Courtesy of Marystown Shipyard Families Alliance.
Marystown Shipyard, circa the late 1980s. Courtesy of Marystown Shipyard Families Alliance.

A 2012 review of shipyard work and cancer risks, commissioned by the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission of Newfoundland and Labrador (WHSCC), confirmed the main source of excess risk for workers is asbestos exposure, with the highest level of exposures dating back to the mid-1970s.

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READ MORE: Ill, ex-shipyard workers taking on Newfoundland gov’t over asbestos

When asked about compensation claims associated with the Marystown Shipyard, the government referred Global News to the province’s workers’ compensation agency, WorkplaceNL.

“Claims are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis, considering the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Act and WorkplaceNL policy,” CEO Dennis Hogan said in a statement issued by the agency. “WorkplaceNL considers the individual merits of each claim, and bases decisions upon the best available scientific evidence.”

Meanwhile, Walsh says his Stage 3 cancer could have been caught earlier if the government had agreed to the Shipyard Families Alliance’s 2007 request for an intake clinic. The Alliance maintained the clinic would evaluate individual workers’ health status and toxic exposures in the workplace.

He’s undergoing treatments, wondering what recognition, if any, he will receive for how it happened.